US study shows drop in child abuse

By David Crary, AP

NEW YORK (AP) A massive new federal study
documents an unprecedented and dramatic decrease
in incidents of serious child abuse, especially
sexual abuse. Experts hailed the findings as
proof that crackdowns and public awareness campaigns had made headway.

An estimated 553,000 children suffered physical,
sexual or emotional abuse in 2005-06, down 26
percent from the estimated 743,200 abuse victims in 1993, the study found.

"It's the first time since we started collecting
data about these things that we've seen
substantial declines over a long period, and
that's tremendously encouraging," said professor
David Finkelhor of the University of New
Hampshire, a leading researcher in the field of child abuse.

"It does suggest that the mobilization around
this issue is helping and it's a problem that is
amenable to solutions," he said.

The findings were contained in the fourth
installment of the National Incidence Study of
Child Abuse and Neglect, a congressionally
mandated study that has been conducted
periodically by the Department of Health and
Human Services. The previous version was issued in 1996, based on 1993 data.

The new study is based on information from more
than 10,700 "sentinels" such as child welfare
workers, police officers, teachers, health care
professionals and day care workers in 122
counties across the country. The detailed data
collected from them was then used to make national estimates.

The number of sexually abused children decreased
from 217,700 in 1993 to 135,300 in 2005-2006 a
38 percent drop, the study shows. The number of
children who experienced physical abuse fell by
15 percent and the number of emotionally abused children dropped by 27 percent.

The 455-page study shied away from trying to
explain the trends, but other experts offered their theories.

"There's much more public awareness and public
intolerance around child abuse now," said Linda
Spears, the Child Welfare League of America's
vice president for public policy. "It was a
hidden concern before people were afraid to
talk about it if it was in their family."

She also noted the proliferation of programs
designed to help abusers and potential abusers overcome their problems.

Finkelhor, whose own previous research detected a
drop in abuse rates, said the study reveals
"real, substantial declines" that cannot be
dismissed on any technical grounds, such as changing definitions of abuse.

He suggested that the decline was a product of
several coinciding trends, including a "troop
surge" in the 1990s when more people were
deployed in child protection services and the
criminal justice system intensified its
anti-abuse efforts with more arrests and prison sentences.

Finkelhor also suggested that the greatly
expanded use of medications may have enabled many
potential child abusers to treat the conditions
that otherwise might have led them to molest or mistreat a child.

"There's also been a general change in
perceptions and norms about what one can get away
with, so much more publicity about these things," he said.

One curious aspect of the study was the manner of
its release. Although HHS had launched the study
in 2004 and invested several million dollars, it
was posted a few days ago on the Internet with no
fanfare neither a press release nor a news
conference. Finkelhor, noting that experts in the
field had been impatiently awaiting the study,
described this low-profile approach as "shocking."

The findings might be disconcerting to some in
the child-welfare field who base their funding
pitches on the specter of ever-rising abuse
rates, said Richard Wexler, executive director of
the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

"The best use of scarce child welfare dollars is
on prevention and family preservation not on
hiring more people to investigate less actual abuse," said Wexler.

The study found some dramatic differences in
child abuse rates based on socio-economic
factors. Poor children were three times more
likely than other kids to experience abuse, and
rates of abuse in African-American families were
significantly higher than for whites and Hispanics.

Family structure also was a factor for example,
children whose single parent had a live-in
partner faced an abuse rate 10 times that of a child living with two parents.

Wexler said a primary reason for the overall drop
in abuse rates was the relatively prosperous
economy during the period under study.

"The fact that the economic gains were unequal
explains why maltreatment declined less in black families," he said.

The main author of the study, Andrea Sedlak of
the Rockville, Md.-based research firm Westat
Inc., said she was heartened by the overall
findings of declining abuse rates. However, she
was troubled to find that more than half of child
maltreatment incidents are not investigated by child-protection agencies.

"Is the system still so strapped?" she asked.
"There's still a lot of material here saying the system has a long way to go."

The study does not cover the recent period in
which the United States plunged into a recession,
prompting some reports of increased domestic
violence and abuse in hard-off families.